Learning to Improvise…
Chapter 6

by Katherine

Previous chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Size: Approx 230K


JD Dunne stepped out of the jail and leaned against one of the nearby support posts. He smiled broadly as he watched a small group of children bail out of a wagon that had stopped near Mrs. Potter’s store and race off, shouting cheerful goodbyes as they went. After lunch, Ezra Standish, Nathan Jackson and Vin Tanner had taken them out of town for what Ezra called a botany lesson. JD hadn’t even known what botany was until Ezra defined it for him. He still wasn’t sure he understood the whole concept.

Initially, he’d thought the idea of studying plants was sort of pointless. It didn’t seem nearly as useful as learning to read, write and work figures. To his way of thinking one plant was pretty much like another. He knew the difference between vegetables in the garden and the weeds he was expected to pull and he knew enough to avoid poison ivy and poison oak, but more than that he didn’t think was terribly important. He’d said as much to Ezra when he’s brought up the subject having a botany lesson today for the children he was teaching.

Both Vin and Nathan were quick to point out that knowing more than that was definitely a skill worth having. Vin’s argument had focused on recognizing edible plants that could keep a man alive in lean times and those poisonous ones that were to be avoided. Nathan had pointed out that many of the medicines he used were derived from local plants. Many were beneficial and important to be able to identify and use.

Ezra had chuckled, stating all he’d intended was to simply broaden the number of subjects he exposed the children to. However, since both Vin and Nathan had made such eloquent arguments, he invited them to participate in the day’s lesson. JD had thought it a good idea. Seems ta me they still need a little time to really work out whatever upset Vin last week.

When he’d asked Vin and Ezra about them being involved Vin had hinted at some trouble with Nathan. All Ezra had been willing to divulge was that Nathan had said something Vin found objectionable. JD had kept his eyes open since then, wanting to help out if he could. He’d noticed things seemed easier between Ezra and Nathan since they’d gone out with Vin to repair Nettie’s roof.

But he hadn’t missed the fact that Vin still seemed to be keeping an eye on Nathan. Oh it wasn’t anything blatantly obvious or even genuinely hostile. It was more like the tracker was reluctant to allow Nathan to spend much time with Ezra unless he was around.

JD figured if Nathan had said something to piss Vin off, the tracker might hang on to that anger awhile. The man had it in him to hold a grudge, about that the young sheriff had no doubts. Buck is always accusing me of talking before I think, but Nate can be just as guilty of doing that too. Figure he said something stupid when he talked to Vin and Ezra about them being together. Based on what little they told me, I’m guessing whatever it was Nate said was about Ez. Doubt he did it to be mean, because Nate usually isn’t a cruel man, he just doesn’t always realize that some things are better left unsaid. Or worded a bit less…brutally honest. Momma always said silence is golden, and I’m beginning to think she was right. Got a feeling Nate might do with learning that fact. If his assumption was right, then JD expected Vin to hang on to his anger longer than he might otherwise have.

JD actually found that fact to be a validation of his acceptance of Vin and Ezra’s relationship. The two were a couple and professed to be committed to one another. To JD’s way of thinking, that meant they should stand up for each other, the same way a conventionally married couple were expected to. The sheriff felt it only right that Vin watch out for Ezra and make sure Nathan didn’t get another chance to say something stupid or hurtful. Hell Buck whaps me often enough when I say something stupid. Probably wouldn’t hurt for Vin to do the same to Nate now and again.

He chuckled to himself, trying to picture Nathan’s reaction to getting that sort of treatment. He was pleased to note that Vin, Ezra and Nathan seemed at ease in each other’s company at the moment. He seriously hoped that things continued that way. JD did not want whatever problem existed to cause a serious rift in the group he considered his family.

He watched as Ezra lightly snapped the reins and sent the wagon down the street toward the livery. JD sauntered down the boardwalk, wanting to find out how things had gone this afternoon. Things might look relaxed and easy from a distance, but he knew he’d get a better feel for the true situation if he spoke to them.

He made it to the livery at the same time their wagon. "Have a good lesson, Ez?"

The gambler gracefully leapt down from the wagon before answering. "Any time with the children is always well spent, JD."

"So is that a yes or a no?"

JD rolled his eyes. He found it exasperating that Ezra couldn’t simply give him a straight answer, but at the same time he was pleased that the gambler had remembered to use his first name.

Ezra grinned, dimples appearing. "Yes."

Vin laughed, and slapped JD on the shoulder when he also leapt down off the wagon. "You should have come with us JD. Could have learned something. Know I did."

JD’s eyebrows went up. "Thought you were teaching?"

"Don’t mean I can’t learn somethin’ while I’m at it." Vin pointed out, his tone reasonable, very matter-of-fact. "Even Nate learned somethin’. Dincha, Nate?" Vin tossed the last over his shoulder where Nathan was still standing in the bed of the wagon.

The healer nodded. "Yeah, I did." Nathan’s easy, relaxed smile was reassuring, letting JD know his initial assessment of their attitude was correct. They were comfortable with each other. JD didn’t think the man would be smiling like that if he hadn’t really had a good time. Ezra says he’s an open book, and I’m thinking he’s right about that. Don’t think Nate can lie any better than I can.

Nathan held up several small bags. "And thanks again for pointing out where to find some of these. My usual spot was getting pretty thin."

"No problem, Nate." Vin’s half-smile appeared. "Can’t have you runnin’ out. Never know when we might be needin’ that stuff."

JD had seen the bags Nathan held several times before. They were the ones Nathan routinely used to gather herbs. While he didn’t really care for the teas the healer made from many of them, he was willing to concede they did often make a man feel better. And the poultices Nathan made seemed to help injuries heal faster, cleaner. JD had never seen a limb amputated and he really didn’t want to either.

"Give me hand with these, will ya, JD?" Nathan held up several bundles of what looked like loosely bound twigs and roots to JD.

"Sure." JD eyed the twigs speculatively. "What is all that stuff anyway?"

"Plants I need to dry." Nathan passed off what he held to JD, and bent to gather more. "Some plants it’s the bark that’s the most beneficial not just the leaves. On others, it’s the roots. I try not to dig up too many o’ those cause it pretty much kills off your supply. But taking a few should be okay."

JD nodded like he understood, not really wanting to ask for more information. Sometimes it was easier just to take Nathan’s word for it. He held the loose bundle the older man had handed him, surprised by the weight. He hadn’t thought something that looked so light could weight as much as it did. He waited to see if there was more. When Nathan stepped down out the wagon with a bundle of his own he figured that’s all there was.

Ezra stepped toward the horses’ heads, one hand already moving to encourage them to move forward. "While you gentlemen see to restocking Mr. Jackson’s apothecary, Vin and I will see to the safe return of Yosemite’s wagon and care for the horses."

Nathan sighed softly as the wagon pulled away, Vin and Ezra disappearing into the shadowed confines of the stable. JD frowned, as he moved to follow the former slave up the stairs to the clinic. "Something wrong, Nate?"

"He doesn’t use my first name." The older man shrugged one shoulder, a trace of hurt leaking through his voice. "Thought me an’ him had gotten past him calling me Mr. Jackson."

JD shook his head. Why they all think I’m the slow one, I’ll never know. "I had to ask him more than once, Nate." He made sure keep his tone unperturbed, neutral as he added, "So have Buck and Chris." Know it bugs Chris when Ez calls him Mr. Larabee. Course I think Ez does it now more just because he knows it bugs Chris. Man sure does like to play with fire.

JD waited on the landing for Nathan to open the clinic door. "Think he just forgets that it’s okay to not be so formal. Sometimes I think he’s not sure you really meant it if you only ask once."

If he’d had a free hand, JD would have waved it to emphasis. "He don’t mean anything bad by it. Think it’s just his way o’ showing respect. Same way the kids all call you Mr. Nathan. You know?"

"You really think that’s all it is?" Nathan’s question was serious, earnest.

JD did his best not to smile. He didn’t want his friend to think he was laughing at him. "Yeah, Nate, I really think that’s all it is."

Nathan nodded slowly, apparently satisfied as he began hanging plants on the small clothesline that had been strung in the corner of the clinic for just that purpose. The smell of drying plants was one that JD associated with the clinic. He had been surprised that a place just above the stable didn’t smell of horses, or dung. If it weren’t for the negative associations of pain and Nathan’s uncomfortable, but necessary examination of whatever injury that had a man there in the first place, the clinic was actually a rather homey, welcoming even.

The clinic was tidy, with everything in its place and always clean. There was nothing grandiose about it, but JD thought that the simple, sturdy furniture and plain surroundings reflected Nathan’s straightforward, practical approach to life. Bet when he and Rain get married she adds some nice stuff. Kind o’ things that only women ever seem to know about. They can always dress up a home better than a man. Make a place feel like a home, not just some place you hang your hat, without even trying.

The sheriff stepped closer when he saw Nathan had finished handing his plants and offered his bundle to the healer. Nathan’s deft fingers made short work of hanging the rest. "How long ‘fore you can use these?" JD asked gesturing toward plants on the line.

"Be a few days ‘fore they dry. Should be able to use them about then." Nathan sounded very pleased. "Chris and Buck back?"

"Not yet." Chris and Buck had ridden out to the gunslinger’s ranch to do some repairs to the corral fence. "I figure they’ll probably spend the night out there." JD shrugged. "Not much going on in town that they need to rush back right away."

Nathan nodded. "Kind o’ nice having things be peaceful for a change."

Personally, JD wouldn’t mind a bit more excitement. But he could understand Nathan’s sentiment. Seems like every time there’s a dust up, he’s the one working the longest. Rest of us just have to rein things in when they get wild. But it’s Nate that has to deal with the aftermath when stuff gets crazy around here.

"Josiah still on patrol?"

"Yeah. But I expect he’ll be back shortly."

Nathan checked the small potbellied stove and worked to bring the dying embers to life before adding a few sticks of wood. He held up the kettle. "You want a cup of tea?"

Not long ago, JD had discovered that as long as it wasn’t some medicinal type tea that he rather liked the beverage. And he liked being able to share a cup with Nathan, feeling like it gave him something in common with the other man. He’d been relieved to find that not all the peacekeepers felt the need to drink alcohol. He hadn’t wanted to be the only one who didn’t imbibe, as Ezra put it, but he really didn’t care for whiskey.

"You gonna make the same stuff you had the other day?" Don’t remember what kind that was, but it sure was good.

"If that’s what you want," Nathan shrugged, and smiled, "sure."

JD smiled back. "Then, I’ve got time for a cup."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah could just make out the outline of Four Corners as he got closer. He smiled to himself, glad to be returning from his afternoon patrol, more than ready for a cool drink and human company. It had been hot and dusty, as usual, but it was still a beautiful day and he enjoyed the quiet solitude. He liked to use his time out of town as a sort of meditation. An opportunity to reflect on and ponder aspects of his life he usually made it a practice to avoid thinking about.

Working on the church was penance and in some ways it was an activity he engaged in so that he would not have to think. Keeping his hands busy made it easy not to dwell on the reason he needed to observe penance in the first place. It was soothing to his spirit to focus on the immediate, to exhaust himself physically while attempting to create a suitable place of worship. There was satisfaction to be had in seeing his efforts bear fruit, to have something tangible to firmly establish his atonement.

Josiah sighed and shifted in his saddle. His thoughts today had focused on Ezra. He no long called Ezra ‘son’ and fought himself hard to keep from verbalizing that endearment when in his heart and mind he still silently used the term to address Ezra. Oh, he knew the younger man wasn’t his son. In fact the gambler didn’t even share a passing resemblance to Josiah’s only child. But there was something about Ezra that made the former preacher think often of his dead son, Aaron. Perhaps it was the mischief in his eyes, or maybe it was the dimples that appeared when he grinned. Aaron had those same traits. He also shared Ezra’s love of color, although Aaron tended to choose patterns over the solid blocks that Ezra seemed to favor. Josiah suspected his son would have loved Ezra’s favorite red jacket just as much as the gambler did.

Not for the first time did Josiah regret the choices he’d made in his life. As soon as he was old enough he’d set out on his own, wanting nothing more than to leave behind his father’s constant criticisms and unforgiving mindset. Although it was irrational, he sometimes felt that he’d unintentionally abandoned his sister along the way. He should have been there for her, or taken her with him, found some way to shield her from the fire and brimstone their father routinely spewed. He believed strongly that her current mental instability might have been prevented if she had not had to bear the brunt of their father’s religious fervor for so long. Seeing to it that she was well cared for and looked after was his way of trying to make up for leaving her to their sire’s mercy.

Josiah felt he’d made the same mistake with his son, sacrificing the limited time he’d had with the boy to pursue what at the time seemed like a more important goal. He had wanted to help abolish slavery and to that end had gotten deeply involved in the underground railroad. As rewarding as those efforts had been, Aaron’s death had left him wondering what the hell he could have ever thought was more worthwhile, more important than his son.

Josiah shuddered. He didn’t want to revisit those images. They haunted his dreams even now, years later. His boy died a victim of his father’s foolish pride. He had been so certain that he would never be questioned, no one would suspect him of being a conductor. He hadn’t gotten careless because that implied his increasingly reckless behavior hadn’t been deliberate, but simply a result of extenuating circumstances. Josiah knew the truth. It had been is desire to thumb his nose at those who hunted down escapees and their helpers that sowed the seeds of the whirlwind he’d be left to reap.

Enough! Josiah shook his head trying to dispel images he’d rather not look upon. Thinking about this is pointless. It changes nothing, and it never has.

He took a deep breath. Josiah was determined not to dwell on what he’d lost. Four Corners was his home now. It felt good to be a part of something again. He felt like his life had meaning and direction. Josiah forcibly reminded himself the past was done, nothing could be changed there.

As he headed into town, he noticed a few children running toward their homes. They waved to him and Josiah smiled broadly as he waved back. Must have just gotten back from their botany lesson. Wonder how it went.

Having participated in several schooling sessions, he knew firsthand just how much the children enjoyed their lessons. The class size had grown fairly steadily from its inception, something Josiah attributed to mothers in town talking to one another. They had evidently noticed and come to appreciate just how good a teacher Ezra was.

The big peacekeeper sighed. While many in town had come to see the merit in letting Ezra teach their children, not everyone had. So the search continued for a real teacher. Josiah suspected finding someone qualified and willing to work for the minimal salary the townspeople could afford would prove to be more difficult than many realized and in all likelihood would not happen quickly.

Josiah snorted in derision. Damn shame the rest are too blind to see Ezra is a fine instructor for their children. Those kids are missing out. Isn’t anyone in this town as well educated as Ezra.

He unconsciously smiled, feeling a sense of paternal pride. No one else would have thought to teach the children botany, or geography. World is changing all the time. Knowledge like that just might come in handy in the future. The oldest child Ezra taught wouldn’t even be half of Josiah’s age when a new century would begin. There was no telling what the twentieth century might require of them.

Josiah caught a glimpse of JD and Nathan as they entered the clinic. A quick glance as he passed the jail and the saloon confirmed that neither Vin nor Ezra were lounging outside. He hadn’t really expected them to be there, but habit made him look anyway. If Nathan is just getting home then Vin and Ezra are probably putting the wagon they used away for Yosemite.

Despite appearances to the contrary, he knew Ezra was conscientious about returning items he had requested permission to borrow. The man was not a thief. He might con someone out of their possessions, gamble long enough to leave them nothing but the shirt on their back, but he did not ever stoop so low as to steal.

Although, Josiah laughed softly to himself, it was more likely that he conned Vin into doing anything that might get his hands dirty rather than do the job himself. Might not steal, but the boy does hate getting dirty. Can’t say I blame him. More than one task I’d be willing to avoid if I could get someone else to do it for me. Josiah smiled, blue eyes bright with amusement as he silently laughed at himself. Cleanliness is next to Godliness after all.//

At first glance the tracker and gambler made for such an odd pair. But Josiah had to concede all seven of them made for a rather unconventional gathering. A hardened gunslinger with a staunch moral code, a fun-loving cowboy who’s tough as nails when he needs to be, a black man who heals, a bounty hunter with a price on his head, a gambler with a heart of gold, a kid who is wiser than all of us some days…and me, a man of God who still struggles to find his faith. Josiah shook his head surprised by the paradoxes they seemed to embody. A motley crew indeed, and yet, one that worked surprisingly well.

When he’d signed on to help defend the Indian village, he’d fully expected them to fail. But the cause was worthy and it seemed like a good thing to die for. It was one more chance to redeem himself. A prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, was on his lips most of the time. And against the odds, they survived. He said a prayer of thanks every night for that good fortune, fervently hoping it would continue for many years to come.

Josiah reined in his horse in front of the livery, dismounting outside. He stretched his back, thinking not for the first time that he was getting too old for this. With a sigh he led Prophet inside the dimly lit building and into his usual stall. As his eyes adjusted to being out of the harsh southwest sun, he glanced around expecting to see Ezra or Vin somewhere inside.

The wagon was in its usual place, as were the light draft horses Yosemite had likely lent them. Josiah frowned. Maybe I missed them.

Then he heard a noise from the small tack room that Yosemite used to store equipment the livery owned. Ah. They must be putting the harness away. Yosemite preferred to keep his tack separate from those who boarded their horses in the livery. It made it less likely that any mix up might occur be it accidental or on purpose. And he liked to make certain that the longer reins that accompanied buggy and wagon harnesses did not get unduly tangled. The small tack room had several hooks arranged especially for that purpose.

Josiah left Prophet for the moment, thinking he’d just step in and say a quick hello to his friends. Might offer to buy them a drink. Boys are probably more than ready for a cold one after spending all afternoon in the sun. Know I could do with one.

He heard Vin laughing through the partially opened door. There was a teasing, inviting quality to his laughter that made Josiah wonder if the tracker was trying to get Ezra to participate in some prank. He shook his head, almost feeling sorry for Vin’s intended victim. A wry smiled formed as he considered the many jokes Vin had subjected people to. That boy is going to go too far one of these days.

He pushed the door fully open allowing his large frame to enter easily. Sunlight streamed into the room from a small window in the back wall, highlighting dust motes dancing in the air. A welcoming call and gentle cautionary comment on whatever mischief Vin might be planning died stillborn on his lips.

Josiah could not believe what he was seeing, thinking it a trick of light and shadow. He blinked and shook his head. The image didn’t change. Vin had Ezra pinned up against the wall, trapping the other man’s hands between them as he lay the full length of his lanky frame against the stocky gambler, preventing his escape. Vin’s hat had been pushed back, hanging down his back from the small cord he used to secure it during windy weather or when riding fast. His hands were cupping Ezra’s face as he proceeded to kiss him thoroughly, roughly. The gambler moaned and seemed to be pushing futilely against Vin.

The ex-preacher saw red. What in the hell did Vin think he was doing? How dare he accost Ezra that way? Subject an unwilling boy to those unnatural passions. He’d put a stop to that right now before it could go any further. No one would inflict that sort of harm on his son.

Josiah strode forward and roughly grabbed Vin by the shoulder, pulling him away from Ezra, all but bodily throwing the tracker to the other side of the room. He towered over the startled and dazed Texan before grabbing him by his jacket lapels and lifting the younger man to his eye level. He slammed Vin into the wall, rattling the window and jarring bridles free from their hooks.

"What. In. The. Hell. Are. You. Doing??!" Josiah punctuated each word by slamming Vin forcefully against the wall. He was only vaguely aware of Vin gasping for air, of his struggling against him, but that just made him tighten his grip with renewed fury. He heard his name called, the tone angry, demanding, but he ignored it, his focus only on the man he was slowly strangling. He felt someone grab his arm, but he easily shrugged off that hold.

His concentration didn’t waver until he felt a sharp blow across the back of his knees, forcing them to buckle. Josiah would have pulled Vin down with him except that another solid blow clipped him in the elbows, making his hands tingle violently and incapable of maintaining his grip. It was only then that he became conscious of the feel of a gun barrel being pressed against his temple, the deadly intent unmistakable.

"I have no desire to kill you, Mr. Sanchez." Ezra’s voice was as cold as ice, little more than a deadly whisper near his left ear. "But make no mistake, I will terminate your miserable existence if you so much as twitch."

"Are you all right, Vin?" Ezra inquired softly, his tone decidedly warmer than it had been just a moment ago.

Vin waved a hand signaling he was fine. That gesture was belied by the way he still leaned heavily against the wall, wheezing and coughing. Josiah inwardly cringed at the sense of satisfaction the younger man’s obvious struggle to recapture his wind gave him. Just a few minutes ago he was thinking of the other man as a friend. His righteous indignation reasserted itself and he glared at Vin.

The tracker deserved what he’d gotten and a lot more. He shifted his weight, intent on regaining his feet and continuing the attack. Ezra stopped that movement with a none too gentle tap from the gun barrel he still held to Josiah’s temple.

"I meant what I said." The usually genteel drawl had taken on a hard, uncompromising cadence. "Another move will be your last."

The big man swallowed hard. He remembered the last time Ezra had pointed a gun at him. The gambler meant business then, and Josiah didn’t doubt he meant it now. What he didn’t understand was why. It made no sense.

"Ezra," Josiah spoke slowly, "I was helping YOU."

"Helping me?" Ezra gave an ungentlemanly snort as he stepped toward Vin, gun still trained on Josiah. His tone took on a sarcastic, incredulous aspect. "I fail to see how brutalizing Vin would be of assistance to me."

Ignoring the gun, Josiah stared at Ezra. "For God’s sake, son," anger and concern made him forget not to use that appellation to address Ezra, "he was forcing himself on you!"

Ezra raised an eyebrow, green eyes hard, expression otherwise unreadable. "You thought—"

"Yes. Of course!" Josiah answered even before Ezra could finish the question. "He had you pinned against the wall!" He glared at Vin again, noting that the younger man was no longer leaning against the wall or wheezing. Vin for his part glared back, blue eyes like ice.

"Ain’t the type ta force myself on anyone, Preacher." Vin growled, his voice low and rough.

The big man snarled, insulted on Ezra’s behalf, hands curling into fists. "You’re supposed to be his friend! You listen to me you filthy, savage heathen just because you’re a sodomite does not --"

"That is quite enough." Ezra soft voice cut through his beginning tirade as easily as a hot knife through butter. His expression brought Josiah to a halt faster than his voice. There was no mistaking that the gambler was fully capable of carrying out his earlier threat to shoot him. Green eyes seemed to glitter with an icy rage, his lips compressed into a hard line, the index finger on the trigger noticeably tightened.

"You seem to be laboring under false assumptions, Mr. Sanchez." Ezra’s voice was soft, conversational even, but that did little to disguise the obvious fury in his stance and expression. Unlike most, the southerner did not raise his voice when angry. He was far too well mannered for such crass and vulgar behavior. Gentlemen did not shout.

"May I remind you that I am not incapable of defending myself should the need to do so arise." Ezra subtly moved the gun he held in his left hand, drawing Josiah’s eyes back to it, before he sprung his derringer free as well. For the first time Josiah noticed it was the Remington that had been trained on him.

He would have expected the gambler to go for his hidden little pop gun first. It was a weapon he seemed to favor when threatened in close quarters. But then it wasn’t Ezra who’d been physically threatened, it was Vin. Josiah took a deep breath realizing that Ezra had likely pulled the six-shooter feeling he might need the larger weapon’s knock down power, something his derringer, while deadly, definitely lacked.

"But he had you pinned…trapped. He was hurting you." Josiah insisted, still trying to make Ezra see reason. He knew that Vin was a friend but that was no excuse. If anything it made his actions more reprehensible.

"Vin does not pose a threat to me. I am not incapable of taking care of myself, Mr. Sanchez." Ezra smiled, but there was no humor in it. "You misread this situation very badly and made a grave error in judgment."

Vin reached out to place a hand on Ezra’s arm. Josiah’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at the gesture, but the gambler made no move to object or shrug off Vin’s hand. The tracker offered quietly, voice still sounding abused. "Don’t really think you should be ready ta kill him for wanting to rescue a friend in thought was in trouble."

Ezra holstered the Remington but kept the derringer trained on Josiah. From his current distance and Ezra’s adjusted aim to something other than his head, the little pop gun would likely not be fatal, but Josiah knew it would still hurt a lot to take a hit from it. He was reluctant to make any sudden moves just yet.

"His belief I was in danger is no excuse for his attempt to kill you." Ezra stated flatly, clearly not ready to give any quarter just yet. He shook his head. "God save me from well-meaning individuals. Their intent never seems to match the end results."

Green eyes narrowed, raking Josiah with an implacable gaze. "What in the hell did you think you were doing?"

"I thought I was helping you," Josiah reiterated with a low growl. How many times was he going to have to say that before Ezra understood? He was not the villain here.

Ezra took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Did it ever occur to you that I did not find Vin’s advances unwelcome and as such did not need nor appreciate your intrusion?"

Josiah stared at him, mouth agape. He had to have heard the question wrong. There was no way his boy could have wanted Vin to kiss him. The tracker’s stance had been aggressive, the kiss rough. It was wrong.

"You’re not like that."

The gambler’s lips twisted in a bitter smile. "Like what?" An eyebrow arched. "A filthy, savage heathen? Or a sodomite?"

Josiah hesitated for a moment, not sure what to say. Green eyes held blue without flinching. "The kiss you witnessed was a mutual exchange, not forced or unwanted. He loves me and I love him Josiah." The preacher started slightly at the use of his first name. It served to underscore just how serious Ezra was. "We have been together as a couple for several months."

Josiah’s blue eyes darkened with anger and betrayal. Months! And I’m just finding out now. Like this! He lashed out not thinking about what he was saying.

"You see nothing wrong with participating in this….this perversion?!" Not caring about the derringer Ezra still threatened him with, Josiah surged to his feet. He didn’t step forward as he’d intended because Vin drew his mare’s leg, the ominous click of that large hammer seemed to fill the small room stopping Josiah. The tracker now stood steady on his feet, ready to attack or defend if need be.

The big man drew himself up to his full height and glared at both of them, righteous indignation radiating from him. He unconsciously found himself spouting a rigid condemnation that would have made his father proud. "Carnal relations between men profanes the name of God. Such an action is an abomination."

"Leviticus. Chapter 18. Verse 22." Ezra calmly stated, obviously not the least bit intimidated. "I am familiar with the passage, but I find that much in Leviticus has no real bearing. Given your regard for Mr. Jackson, I’m sure you don’t hold with Chapter 25, verse 44."

Josiah blinked, for a moment taken by surprise to have the gambler know exactly the chapter and verse he was referring to, and yet he was ignorant of the one Ezra just mentioned. The gambler proceeded to enlighten him. "According to that passage, it is right and proper to own slaves, provided of course you buy them from among the neighboring nations. God forbid you enslave your own people."

Ezra’s expression turned smug. "I’d told you I’d masqueraded as a preacher once. Did you think I wouldn’t know the Good Book as least as well as you? Maybe even better."

"Knowing it isn’t the same as having faith." Josiah spit out between clenched teeth. He was not even sure why he was still arguing, but he couldn’t seem to stop.

"True." Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "But it’s your faith, not mine. And you can’t pick and choose which passages you would prefer to believe in." The gambler’s eyes shifted slightly. "Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Jackson?"

Josiah turned, surprised to see Nathan and JD standing in the doorway. The healer’s eyes moved warily back and forth between Josiah and Ezra. "Heard a ruckus down here." He asked hesitantly, "There a problem?"

"That has yet to be sufficiently ascertained."

JD’s hands hovered above his pistol grips, clearly more inclined to take his cue from the fact that Vin and Ezra both had their guns drawn. "You wanna give us that in English, Ez?"

"Mr. Sanchez walked in on a moment of indiscretion between myself and Vin."


"He saw us kissing." Ezra restated. A wry smile graces his features for a moment. "And took offense."

"Oh. Okay."

JD’s nonchalant answer, coupled with his lack of surprise indicated to Josiah that he was aware of Vin and Ezra’s relationship. He doesn’t seem to object either. I know the boy is young but he is wise enough in the ways of the world to know better. IF the town folk find out about this…shit. They’ll be lucky just to get run out of town and not killed!

Sharp blue eyes shifted to his old friend. "You knew about it too?"

"I knew." Nathan confirmed quietly.

"And you didn’t object??!" Josiah asked, incredulous, again feeling anger and betrayal that his friend had not seen fit to inform him. Has everyone lost their minds? Who else knows about this?

Nathan frowned at him. "What two people do in private is their own business, long as no one is getting hurt. Once I was sure it was a mutual thing between them I didn’t see any need to object." Dark eyes shifted to Vin and Ezra, a small smile passed between them. "We got it worked out just fine."

"And you?" Josiah glared at JD.

The young sheriff shrugged, not the least bit phased by Josiah’s hostile gaze. "Long as I knew Vin wasn’t gonna hurt Ez, I didn’t see a problem with it." JD cocked his head to one side. "They aren’t doing anything wrong, Josiah."

"It’s against the law." The big man argued. Nearly every state and territory had laws against sodomy, buggary and a whole host of crimes labeled under sexual deviance.

"So is assault and battery." Vin countered, voice still rough. "I got more grounds ta see you in jail, Preacher, than you got ‘gainst me an’ Ez." Vin’s use of the title rather than his name was a clear indication the tracker was still pissed.

Nathan darted a concerned look from Josiah to Vin and back. "What did you do?"

Josiah’s anger and betrayal gave way to embarrassment and shame under that assessing gaze. He’d never raised a hand to any of his friends before, not even when he was drunk. "I thought he was hurting Ezra."

JD rolled his eyes. "That’s not an answer. You wanna try again?" The last was a question, but came out more like an order. There was steel in his voice that would not be denied.

"He attempted to strangle the life out of Vin." Ezra supplied when Josiah hesitated. JD and Nathan both gave him a hard look. Anything they might have said was cut off when Ezra continued speaking. "Mr. Jackson, I would greatly appreciate it if you would examine him."

"I don’t need-"

Ezra halted Vin’s protest with nothing more than a look. Josiah couldn’t help but be impressed. Even Chris couldn’t do that.

"Mr. Jackson," Ezra waved one hand in an inviting gesture, "if you please." The gambler deftly stepped away so that he could allow Nathan close to Vin and still cover Josiah.

The preacher sighed heavily, shoulders slumping slightly. "You don’t need that any more."

Ezra regarded him steadily, searching for what Josiah didn’t know, he just hoped the younger man found it. He silently prayed that he hadn’t completely or permanently destroyed the trust that had existed between them. After a moment, the gambler nodded once, sharply and pushed the small gun back up his sleeve. "I will make no apologies." The statement was firm.

Josiah nodded. He hadn’t really expected the gambler to say he was sorry. The last time Ezra had pointed a gun at him wasn’t really even remotely close to this situation. No one had gotten hurt then and Josiah knew he’d over stepped his bounds.

Unfortunately, I can’t really say that I am sorry either. He sighed again. He’d come to Ezra’s defense and even though the gambler might not have needed, it he wasn’t going to apologize for that. And while his outburst hadn’t been what he really meant to say, he still felt Vin and Ezra were making a mistake. What if someone in town finds out? Ben Franklin was right when he said the only way three people can keep a secret is if two are already dead.

He was still struggling with his anger and disappointment. The added fear that Ezra might well be endangering himself by pursuing this folly was added to the mix, along with hurt at not being informed when others had been. He felt an inexplicable sense of loss. Suddenly the room seemed way too small and there was just so much he needed to think about.

He couldn’t stay here any longer. He needed to think. Somewhere alone where he could sort this out. Figure out what to do, order his thoughts so that he could say what he meant to. Without another word Josiah shouldered past JD and out the door, heedless of the possible ruin he was leaving in his wake.


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